Potholes in the Road of Progress

  • Comments posted to this topic are about the item Potholes in the Road of Progress

    Best wishes,
    Phil Factor

  • As a former professional historian, I've read a lot of primary source material about the issues of days past.  It is easier to note these things in hindsight than what is correct or possible at the actual time.  We live in an era of jet engines, so anything from the past that said that a jet engine was impossible appears as bunk to us.  Many things that others have said were possible have not come to fruition despite lots of time and dollars.  In 1950 it was said in military journals of the day that by 2000 soldiers would be heading into battle on their own hover type devices.  I don't know how much time or money was spent on the idea, although presumably some.  But anyone saying that was a waste of time and money would be correct.  You may know the story of the lone scientist who waged a long lonely battle saying that lunar orbit rendezvous was a better way to get to the moon that the two other modes that had the support of most other scientists.  In this case, he prevailed. 

    Examples from history are always messy.  Even things that seem clear and obvious today usually did not seem so to those who lived them.  That is not to say it is not unimportant to try to distinguish the genius from the fool, but sometimes the genius gets it wrong, too.

  • @RonKyle, not sure I can agree with your premise. If the solution wasn't obvious then those out on the edge (so to speak) wouldn't see them either. The problem is more likely that people who are put in positions of relative power for a particular area dislike having their authority challenged. I suspect that is more because they end up in these positions, from political maneuverings within the status quo than any real stand out talent. And today is no different. 

    I see this stuff that Phil talks about every day. Things that the business ask for get stifled by groups of people that a change would affect. The problem is not that genius gets it wrong, the limits of genius are very obvious, the issue is there are no such limits on foolishness because there is usually no deterrent.

  • not sure I can agree with your premise.

    I see what Phil talks about often myself.  Although objectively what I see as one way someone else would see as another.  But some of the examples Phil gave are clear only in the light of history, and there are lots of examples that would demonstrate the reverse.  My only point is that in trying to see the big picture things are messy.  It's not hard to see examples of this even today.  Elion Musk recently said that the biggest threat to mankind is AI.  Others say climate change.  Others say climate change is overrated.  Those living fifty years from now will have a better picture. 

  • RonKyle - Sunday, July 16, 2017 7:21 PM

     Although objectively what I see as one way someone else would see as another.  But some of the examples Phil gave are clear only in the light of history, and there are lots of examples that would demonstrate the reverse.  My only point is that in trying to see the big picture things are messy.  It's not hard to see examples of this even today.  Elion Musk recently said that the biggest threat to mankind is AI.  Others say climate change.  Others say climate change is overrated.  Those living fifty years from now will have a better picture. 

    From the issue of perspective, absolutely I agree. History always gives us a wider view, because more hard data is known.

    The issue I have is that because things and life are inherently messy regardless, it is used as an excuse to do nothing or worse, regress to previous solutions which caused the problems in the first place. We are in a very privileged position today as we get a lot of real world feedback relatively quickly, i.e. we get to see history even faster than previously possible, so in theory should be able to make better decisions, but don't.

    So if the data and a historical view is available at short notice and decisions are still poor. What is the missing part of the equation? 

    For me it points to the level of consciousness that we are operating at. We have advanced industrially and technology but not as a species. We have all these available lessons in history yet continue to ignore them and do the same stupid stuff.

    An example of this is historically recorded extinction events. The data is pretty solid and we have defined ways to measure it. From that we also know we are in the throws of another one right now, with the data to validate it and the causes (not climate change). But are we doing anything? Not really, everyone thinks it is someone else's problem and ignores it.

  • Even the successful inventors get treated badly.  Christopher Cockerell wasn't even allowed to pilot his hovercraft and didn't get much from his invention.

    Take a look at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/5158972/Starlite-the-nuclear-blast-defying-plastic-that-could-change-the-world.html  I would love to know where Starlite is today.

  • @ronkyle,
    In the examples I gave, the detractors weren't just hidebound, but were foolish. Airy, for example, was convinced that Babbage's calculations of the logarithmic tables were unnecessary because he, Airy, was engaged in publishing new highly accurate tables by hand. He hadn't grasped the essential virtue of machine calculation: the elimination of human error. When the hand-calculated tables came out, a supplement had to be published full of corrections to mistakes. Then a second supplement had to be published with corrections to the supplement. In the meantime, Babbage and Ada, ironically met the original secret objective of the machine when they discovered a way of cracking the The Vigenère Cipher without the machine,  Lardner made a series of foolish pronouncements about the railways that were all found to be wrong due to schoolboy errors.
    It is always difficult to predict the way that science would develop, which is why wise scientists are loath to say that something can't be done. In all the cases I quote, the foolish detractors actually said loudly that something couldn't be done or wasn't so, which is why I believe we can and should give them their infamous place in history.

    Best wishes,
    Phil Factor

  • Sometimes even professional Scientists can get it wrong - the two examples I always find illuminating are Oxidisation and Plate Tectonics.
    In the case of the Former , Joseph Priestly was the fist to isolate Oxygen , but failed to appreciate its main role in chemistry, Oxidisation,  because what he was looking for was phlogiston - the non-existent substance that the scientific consensus of the day maintained should exist as a result of combustion. The real impact of Oxygen on the chemical world was actually discovered by Anton Lavoisier , who unlike Priestly, was a dilettante , a member of the French Aristocracy and a part-time tax-collector - that latter was to prove fatal for him come the revolution. 
    Plate tectonics was the other example - again the consensus   amongst the Geological community that the whole idea was absurd and more so that its proponent was not even a Geologist . Alfred Wegener was a meteorologist some one completely out side of the Geological community when he promulgated he theory in 1912. It wasn't accepted until the 1950s

  • In all the cases I quote, the foolish detractors actually said loudly that something couldn't be done or wasn't so, which is why I believe we can and should give them their infamous place in history.

    I completely agree that with the hindsight of history we can give both the famous, infamous, and just plain stupid their due.  My only caution is that is can be difficult in the heat of the moment to see plainly.  I read both sides of many current issues and reaching conclusions can be difficult.  But on at least some issues there will be a definitive verdict of history.  Not that all issues are that consequential.  As a young artillery officer, I was in Korea when GPS technology was first being issued to the military in the early 90s.  At that time the GPS displayed only two numbers, but these numbers then allowed you to plot your location on a map with military coordinates. I quickly became confident enough in the accuracy that I suggested to our senior officers that these could be used to plot the positions of the guns if survey wasn't available.  (When you shoot at targets you can't see, knowing the positions of the guns is vital).  None of them were keen on the idea.  In my view they were two used to the survey system, but I was younger and more open to new ideas.  I think all guns now have an onboard GPS system.  But again, it's only in the hindsight of the years that these become clear.

    Even in science, new ideas take time to be accepted.  The acceptance of the Big Bang theory only supplanted the steady state theory of the universe when the older scientists had largely died off.  That issue doesn't have the consequence of others ones, as in the end, it only matters that the universe is here. 

    My caution is that it's easy to think that we are the ones who are advancing things, and others are holding things back. But I often will ask myself if there's another way to see this that I might be missing, so that I hopefully don't become one of the hidebound ones.  But there are others too quick to take on new ways without understanding why the old things function the way they do.  At least, that's my view.  They have a different one.

  • Some of these sound like applications of Clarke's first law:

    "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

  • First, there is so much junk science and fraudulent inventors out there making noise, it becomes difficult for the investors, the public or even fellow industry experts to separate the wheat from the chaff. Also, it's not enough to invent or discover something new, if you want to gain attention beyond your close knit circle of scientific or technical peers, then you have to demonstrate how it can be translated into practical applications. For example, IoT is an example of this.

    "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Instead, seek what they sought." - Matsuo Basho

  • The article doesn't touch on the opposite effects.  While I certainly support and encourage research, experimentation, etc, etc, ad infinitum, you can't just go and do things because they're new or cool or the latest and greatest.

    A really good example of this is the PowerShell craze that finally seems to be settling down to practical things.  One of the "great" examples of using PowerShell was using it to centralize all backups.  Let's think about that for a minute.  That means one machine has to have privs to all the other machines, so what happens if someone breaks in to that one machine?  They may have the keys to the empire.  And what happens to all those machines when the one machine breaks down?  Log files start exploding.

    Then there's the cool new things that you implement... and they last just until you upgrade SQL Server again.  Nice.

    Heh... and finally, there's the "old tool being replaced" problem.  My favorite example here is the old sp_MakeWebTask stored procedure.  It was fully documented, fully supported, incredibly easy to use, flexible enough to do just about anything you needed to. would even respond to style sheets, and... it's long gone.  Instead of being able to do some remarkable stuff through T-SQL, now you have to either write some trick code or you have to stand up an instance of SSRS.

    Heh... and remember the fiasco when they came out with 64 bit SQL Server?  They didn't include the old "JET" drivers and when asked, MS said "use SSIS".  Gee... <sarcasm on> Why would anyone in their right mind ever want to import a spreadsheet using only T-SQL"? <sarcasm off>  People had to scramble to change one hell of a lot of ETL code to go to 64 bit just because of it.   Eventually MS gave into the pressure and created the "ACE" drivers but they're a poor comparison to the old "JET" drivers.

    So while I agree that people should be allowed to explore their ideas, they also need to take a little responsibility for their actions.  As a lot of folks have said or implied, "Nothing is impossible"... that should also make people realize that just because you can do something with new, too-cool-for-school tools, doesn't mean you should especially if it has to do with databases.

    --Jeff Moden


    RBAR is pronounced "ree-bar" and is a "Modenism" for Row-By-Agonizing-Row.
    First step towards the paradigm shift of writing Set Based code:
    ________Stop thinking about what you want to do to a ROW... think, instead, of what you want to do to a COLUMN.
    "Change is inevitable... change for the better is not".

    Helpful Links:
    How to post code problems
    How to Post Performance Problems
    Create a Tally Function (fnTally)
    Intro to Tally Tables and Functions

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